‘Taming the wild profusion of existing things’: using categories in learning

Daphne Loads

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about putting things in categories and then questioning those categories, and how important both these processes are in learning and teaching.  In this spirit I had a look at Borges’ taxonomy of animals (in Foucault, 1970) supposedly taken from the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  According to this ancient Chinese encyclopaedia (which almost certainly never existed) animals can be sorted into 14 categories:

  • belonging to the emperor
  • embalmed
  • tame
  • sucking pigs
  • sirens
  • fabulous
  • stray dogs
  • included in the present classification
  • frenzied
  • innumerable
  • drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
  • et cetera
  • having just broken the water pitcher
  • that from a long way off look like flies (p.xvi)

Famously, this crazy categorisation made Foucault (1970) laugh.  He liked the way it poked fun at our attempts to “tame the wild profusion of existing things”(p.xvi).  It reminds me of two powerful learning and teaching experiences.

Some years I ago I had the chance to study Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Garden (RBGE) in Edinburgh: a wonderful course.  The time came for us to learn about binary keys for identifying plant specimens in the field.  These are series of questions that enable the identifier to make systematic comparisons between the characteristics of plants.  Are the leaves hairy or smooth?  If smooth are they lobed or entire?  Our lecturers arrived with big bags of assorted biscuits. Our task: to design an identification key that would enable a Martian, or anyone else who happened to be unfamiliar with Jammy Dodgers, Bourbon Fingers and Custard Creams, to identify these crunchy treats.  There was a lot of laughter, a lot of crumbs and a lot of learning.  More effective than a description or definition of keys, this exercise pushed us into the experience of making decisions about significant differences between groups of objects.  It stood us in good stead later when we needed to use identification keys to make fine distinctions between details in the identification of unfamiliar plant species.

That experience also prepared me for the time when I was teaching an introductory course in Horticulture. My aim was different from the biscuit men. I wanted students to question taken-for-granted ways of classifying plants.  I took in armfuls of plant material and asked them to sort it out in a way that made horticultural sense.  There were students in the group who had knowledge of basic botany, habitat conservation, Japanese garden design, commercial production of salad crops and herbal medicine.  Each of these areas of understanding offered different perspectives on how to make sense of diversity.  The ensuing discussions threw light on disputes between botanists who often update plant nomenclature in the light of new discoveries, and nurserymen who prefer to stick with traditional names that are familiar to their customers.  Students discussed the usefulness of terms like “tender/hardy”, “weeds/wildflowers” and “organic/inorganic.” Importantly, they came to understand how as horticulturalists they could make use of varied and sometimes conflicting systems of knowledge.

Nowadays those two learning and teaching activities remind me how important it is to give university students the opportunity to think both within and beyond their chosen disciplines.


Foucault, M. (1970), English Edition Order of Things: An Archaeology of Human Sciences London:Tavistock


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